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All you need to know about Fyre Festival

All you need to know about Fyre Festival

A new documentary explains why the exclusive festival went up in flames

A new documentary explains why the exclusive festival went up in flames

Alice Hearing | February 7th 2019

On April 27th 2017 pictures of horrified festival-goers began to flood social media. It was the first day of Fyre, a swanky new festival in the Bahamas which was so badly organised that guests – eagerly anticipating a “once-in-a-lifetime musical experience” replete with “first-class culinary experiences and a luxury atmosphere” – had to suffer the indignities of folding chairs, soaking-wet mattresses and port-a-potties. Almost two years later, the festival has popped up on social-media feeds again with the release of a new documentary that captures what happened in glorious, exuberant detail: Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened” (living in Britain I am unable to watch “Fyre Fraud”, a rival documentary produced by Hulu). If schadenfreude’s your thing, it is well worth watching. 

How fancy was Fyre supposed to be? 

Pretty fancy. Billed as the ultimate festival for rich American millennials, Fyre sought to position itself as a more exclusive, glamorous Coachella. It was the brainchild of Ja Rule, a famous rapper, and Billy McFarland, a 25-year-old wunderkind of the start-up world.

Beach bums Ja Rule and Billy McFarland in the Bahamas

Tickets ranged in price from $1,000 to $25,000. The most expensive were supposed to buy you a seat on a private jet that would whisk you away to Grand Exuma, a private island in the Bahamas once owned by Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord. There you would stay in a luxurious beach villa or private yacht (with your very own chef), party with the world’s most beautiful models, and pump your fist along to music from Blink-182, Major Lazer and Skepta. 

So where did it all go wrong?

The organisers appear to have spent more money on the promotion of the festival than its execution. A glamorous commercial was shot in which Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Kendall Jenner and other famous models were shown frolicking on yachts and emerging kittenishly from the azure water. Jenner was allegedly paid $250,000 to post an orange tile – an enigmatic square intended to kindle interest in the festival – to her Instagram feed. You heard that right: 250k for one Instagram post. 

McFarland didn’t budget enough time or money to build the infrastructure necessary for a festival for 5,000 people. There was no electricity or running water let alone haute cuisine or entertainment. As time started to run out, and it became clear that it would be impossible to house guests in villas or yachts, McFarland arranged for them to be lodged in disaster-relief tents which, on the first day of the festival, were drenched from a storm the night before. Only after guests had arrived, and reacted in horror to the muddy camp site and their dinner (a Styrofoam box containing two sweaty slices of American cheese between two slices of bread), was the festival cancelled. And because there were so few flights back to Miami, guests were stuck on the island for more than eight hours, with little food or water.

Disaster relief Guests arriving at the festival site

Does finding this hilarious make me a bad person?

You’d be in good company. When the first festival-goers started complaining about their treatment on social media, Fyre went viral. To the glee of onlookers, all the gory details were documented in real time, from the tired school buses that were used to transport guests, to the havoc that ensued when they realised that the experience they had shelled out for would be “once in a lifetime” for all the wrong reasons. (When they discovered that basics were in short supply, a “looting mentality” seized hold of festival-goers, according to one attendee; people started seizing toilet roll and pillows; others started slashing tents and pissing on beds, inspiring another guest to compare the scene before him to a horror movie).  

The internet crowed with delight. One person tweeted: “watch #fyrefestival just be a social experiment to get the “rich” to know what it feels like to be a refugee”. Twitter users roundly applauded Ron Funches, a comedian, when he suggested that the kind of people who would blow thousands of dollars on a trip to see Blink-182 deserved everything they got: “that’s Darwinism at its finest.”

Dinner is served When this image was posted, the organisers realised that Fyre was toast

Did the organisers get their just desserts? 

And some. When local labourers realised that they weren’t going to get paid, even after spending months building the site, things quickly turned nasty. An angry mob apparently confronted the organisers; some tried to hold them to ransom. Staff began to flee. “Save yourself mode kicked in”, according to one employee. Andy King, an event producer in charge of Fyre Festival’s logistics, traded clothes with one of his employees, hid in a urinal, then stowed away in a car that was departing the island. 

McFarland was publicly humiliated and eventually sentenced to six years in prison for fraud. Ja Rule took to Twitter to defend his reputation. On the day after the festival, he tweeted, “I truly apologise as this is NOT MY FAULT…but I’m taking responsibility”. After the documentaries were released, he returned to the Twittersphere, insisting that “I too was hustled, scammed, bamboozled, hoodwinked, lead astray!!!” Influencers who appeared in Fyre’s promotional campaign, including Jenner and Hadid, have been issued subpoenas over payments they received for their involvement in the festival. 

Is there more to the documentary than laughing at rich kids? 

When the festival guests started arriving, organisers directed them to Exuma Point Bar and Grille, a nearby restaurant, in order to buy time. True to form, McFarland never paid Maryann Rolle, the owner, for the thousands of meals she and her employees cooked for guests as well as staff in the months leading up to the weekend. In the film, she struggles to hold back tears as she reveals this pushed $50,000 into debt. Her plight moved viewers, and a crowdfunding page was set up to repay her. It has more than surpassed its goal, raising almost $219,000. 

FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Netflix)